INDIANAPOLIS — Rick Mears, drawing on lessons he learned 20 years ago racing in the desert, outdueled Michael Andretti down the stretch of a dramatic Indianapolis 500 before 400,000 fans Sunday to join A.J. Foyt and Al Unser in an elite group of four-time winners.
Mears, after leading the first 12 laps from the pole in his Chevrolet-powered Penske, was content to drop back to fifth or sixth place during most of the first 300 miles and let Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi wage a stirring race up front.
"Basically, we saved the car all day," Mears said. "I learned driving in off-road races that you can't abuse your car and expect to finish, and I learned early that if you don't finish you can't win. The way we looked at it, the race was starting after about 350 miles."
On lap 140, which was the 350-mile mark, Mears pitted--three laps later than Andretti. Mears had been cruising along in sixth gear, saving fuel, while the leaders raced at methanol-gulping speeds. This was to prove significant late in the day when he finished 3.1 seconds ahead of Andretti with six stops to Andretti's seven.
Mears, from Bakersfield, is expected to collect an estimated $1.2 million at the 500 banquet tonight for his 2-hour 50-minute ride. Mears averaged 176.460 m.p.h.
The finish turned on two restarts after late yellow caution flags, one brought out by Danny Sullivan's Alfa Romeo's smoking on lap 182 and the other by Mario Andretti stalling in the entrance to pit lane on lap 189.
On the first restart, Mears was leading, but Michael Andretti outdragged him to the first turn and made a daring pass on the outside to gain the lead. A lap later, Mears made a move that mirrored Andretti's, going by to take the lead for good.
"Rick just blew by me like I was standing still," Andretti said. "I guess he was paying me back for earlier when I passed him on the outside."
The only question remaining seemed to be if Mears had enough fuel to finish 500 miles. Then Mario Andretti stalled, setting up an opportunity for his son to pass again for the lead when the green flag dropped.
This time, Mears was ready, and with six laps in the race he never let Michael Andretti come close. All six of Mears' final laps were run at better than 220 m.p.h., while Andretti could manage no better than 219.
"I felt we had the strongest car all the time," Mears said. "I was not concerned when I saw that Mario had stopped and the yellow (caution flag) came out. Our last set of tires were our best, and with the track cooling we got a better grip and kept hustling to the end."
Mears, 39, is the youngest to win his fourth 500. Foyt was 42 when he won his fourth, in 1977, and Unser was 48 at the time of his fourth victory, in 1987. Mears' other victories were in 1979, 1984 and 1988.
"This is our eighth win here, and Rick has won half of them," said Roger Penske, the team owner. "He is such an outstanding driver that this was his track today. When we (the crew) saw him get that great start in the last restart, we just went wild."
Mears, who joined Penske's team 14 years ago after a distinguished career in desert racing, said each victory gets sweeter.
"The second was better than the first, and the third better than the second," Mears said. "As for this one, it won't sink in how great it is until after a night's sleep. When I first came here I never dreamt even one win would happen. I couldn't even comprehend it. Now I've got four, and I can't believe that either."
Andretti, hoping for his first Indy 500 victory to give himself a sendoff to a Formula One career next year, was the only other driver on the lead lap with Mears at the finish.
Fittipaldi's bid ended after 171 laps when his gearbox broke as he tried to engage gears after a pit stop. He had led 46 laps, but his clutch had failed.
A Michael Andretti victory would have provided a big day for the family. At one time all four were running in the top 10. John Andretti, Michael's cousin and best friend, finished fifth; and Mario was seventh after leading 20 laps early in the race. Jeff, Michael's younger brother, was running eighth when his engine broke and he finished 15th, a place that seems certain to bring him rookie of the year honors tonight.
Hiro Matsushita, the first Japanese driver at Indianapolis, was credited with 16th after finishing only 149 laps and was the only rookie--among five in the field--to finish.
Arie Luyendyk, last year's winner, finished third, followed by Al Unser Jr., John Andretti and Gordon Johncock.
Johncock, 54, a two-time winner who hasn't raced in two years, was at home in Hastings, Mich., 10 days ago running a tractor when Ron Hemelgarn called him to drive one of his spare cars. Johncock started 33rd and motored his way to sixth place by staying out of trouble.